Israel: Hostile stereotypes persist despite the peace process

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Israeli school textbooks still reflect the beliefs of a nation at war, despite political moves towards peace which began some 20 years ago, and accelerated after the 1991 Gulf War.

Schoolchildren are too often presented with "self-righteous, ethnocentric,simplistic and black and white presentations of Arab-Israeli relations".

The findings emerge from a study of 124 textbooks for Hebrew, history, geography and civics, approved by the Ministry of Education for 199495. Researcher Daniel Bar-Tal, of Tel Aviv University, told The TES that current reading lists show little change.

Arguing that societies in "intractable conflict" build belief systems to help them cope, Professor Bar-Tal selects beliefs related to security (safety and survival), positive self-image, victimisation, delegitimisa tion of the opponent, unity and peace, and assesses the degree to which they are reflected in textbooks used in Jewish state secular schools (which educate some 68 per cent of pupils) and state religious schools (educating around 22 per cent, and associated with nationalist Zionist ideals).

These beliefs were promoted via many channels during the dark years of the Arab-Israeli conflict, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, becoming "part of the Israeli ethos". During 1994-1995, however, when the peace process was at its height, they were still appearing in textbooks.

Professor Bar-Tal found security to be the most frequently highlighted, followed by positive self-image and belief in victimisation. He also found widespread negative stereotyping of Arabs, and few explicit references to peace and unity.

Some of his findings echo those of the American newspaper, Newsday, which probed 330 state-approved texts in four subjects used in Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Palestinian autonomous (as well as Israeli) schools in the same academic year. As The TES reported in January 1996, Newsday found that Jordanian, Syrian and Palestinian schools avoided Arab-Jewish coexistence altogether, while Egypt still did not name Israel on school maps. It gave examples of anti-semitism and denigration of Christianity in Jordanian schools, and reported that in Syria, Israelis were portrayed as dancing drunk on Islamic shrines in Jerusalem.

In Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict is introduced as soon as a child starts school, Professor Bar-Tal discovered. Six out of nine Hebrew readers each contain two or three pieces about soldiers (mostly members of the family), their mission and a suspect object which may be a bomb. Of the 20 analysed readers for secular pupils, aged seven to 12, 16 refer to security, via themes such as Jewish heroism and bereavement. "Our dream is to die for our people," says one.

Examples of victimisation appear from ancient through to modern history, the latter including the Holocaust and the conflict with the Arabs. One reader, describing the first Jewish settlements in Galilee, says: "We were lonely pioneers surrounded by a sea of enemies and murderers." One book for religious schools describes those who chose to die under the Greeks, rather than violate religious laws, as setting the "example for the holy martyrs through the generations".

Israeli Jews are depicted positively, as progressive, educated, moral and peace-loving people, who have redeemed the land from desolation, modernised it, enlightened the Arabs, and fought just wars against an implacable enemy. History books dealing with pre-state Palestine feature the national aspirations of the Jews, disregarding those of the Arabs or painting them as uncompromising. One book bluntly states: "They [the Arabs] are extremists and we are moderates. They murder indiscriminately, and we defend ourselves."

Arabs are widely portrayed as uneducated and primitive. In the religious sector, nearly two-thirds of Hebrew readers use labels such as "wild mob" and "aspiring for blood and robbery".

Professor Bar-Tal calls for a long-term perspective, noting that there have been changes over the years. He gives several examples of books which portray Arabs positively, such as an elementary school geography book that describes Israeli Arabs and Jewish Arab relations from an Arab perspective,and a high school civics textbook, "one of the few books, and maybe even the only one, which mentions and discusses Arab discrimination in Israel".

While calling for a more open and complex approach, Professor Bar-Tal concludes: "We may assume that the political climate, since 1991, has been changing too rapidly for the society's ethos, fuelled by the reality of intractable conflict through many decades, to keep pace with it. . . . The development of new curricula and the publication of new textbooks can take years. "

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